Polling Center: GOP Voters and the Path to Citizenship

As leaders of the national Republican Party carry on a loud and contentious discussion of the party’s approach to immigration, the February 2013 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found most Republicans in Texas still opposed to comprehensive immigration reform that includes a “path to citizenship.”

Texans who identify with the Tea Party were especially strong in their rejection of comprehensive immigration reform, a dimension of public opinion in Texas that sheds light on U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s public skepticism toward some national Republicans’ talk about compromising with Democrats on the issue.

Cruz has been one of the most vocal skeptics both of the core of President Obama’s approach — which hinges on providing a so-called “path to citizenship”— and of signs of some Republicans’ openness to a deal. In a February speech, the freshman senator from Texas accused Obama of sabotaging congressional efforts by “focusing on amnesty, [and] a path to citizenship that skips ahead of the line.” Cruz has since continued his stand as a holdout among fellow Republicans seemingly attempting to reach a deal that might staunch a perceived present and future source of political weakness for the party.

His position isn’t new: In the run-up to his election in November 2012, Cruz’s effort to stand apart from his comrades on comprehensive immigration reform reflected the attitudes of Texas Republicans on a wide range of immigration related issues. Those views were evident in the October 2012 UT/Tribune poll, taken in the midst of a GOP presidential campaign now being roundly criticized for its anti-immigrant tone — from Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” line to the spontaneous booing of Rick Perry’s defense of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants in the primary debates.

Public opinion rarely shifts dramatically in so short a period of time, but it seemed plausible to wonder if the very public soul searching among Republican elected officials and opinion leaders would have a serious effect within the Republican base.

Based on our February 2013 poll, the attitudes of GOP voters remain out of step with the shifts in tone among a growing number of GOP leadership figures. The UT/ Tribune poll question on comprehensive immigration reform asked, “Do you support or oppose passing a comprehensive immigration overhaul at the federal level that would provide a pathway to citizenship for most illegal immigrants currently living in the United States?" Among self-identified Republicans, 64 percent expressed opposition, with 44 percent strongly opposed; 30 percent supported comprehensive reform, but only 6 percent strongly supported it. (Overall, 51 percent supported reform and 41 percent opposed it; view more detailed breakdowns at the Texas Politics Project.)

The attitudes of Cruz’s supporters are likely buttressing his resistance to compromise on comprehensive immigration reform. Texas Republicans view Cruz favorably, and so it should be no shock to find that opposition to that reform among his supporters is a robust 65 percent, virtually indistinguishable from overall Republican opposition.

But that opposition is even stronger among Tea Party adherents, a corner of the GOP that provides a critical base of support for Cruz and a big part of his public branding. In the February poll, 76 percent of Tea Party identifiers opposed reform — 20 percent higher than mainline Republicans.

Cruz is viewed favorably by 85 percent of Texas Tea Partiers; perhaps most telling, within that overall favorability number, he is viewed very favorably by 69 percent. This probably makes him the most popular Tea Party Republican in the state. Rick Perry does well among these voters, 76 percent of whom view him favorably. But it’s hard not to suspect that his 12-year and counting tenure has reduced enthusiasm among a group known for its suspicion of elected officials who seem settled into life in government — his “very favorable” number, at 39 percent, is 30 percentage points lower than Cruz’s. John Cornyn, Cruz’s senior colleague from Texas, is viewed favorably by 60 percent, and very favorably by 36 percent — again, hardly a stamp of disapproval, but well below the frenzy of good feeling Cruz has generated within the Tea Party.

Among the Tea Party identifiers who view Cruz very favorably, 88 percent oppose comprehensive immigration reform, an active and important base of support for his resistance to the emerging national party line. Nor is Cruz out on a limb here with national Republicans, who, while not as opposed to comprehensive reform as Texas Republicans, are still registering majority opposition to various formulations of comprehensive reform.

Along with other GOP immigration apostates like Jeff Flake of Arizona, Cruz may be confounding the efforts of party leaders to reconcile the voting base to their pragmatic electoral concerns. But Cruz appears in sync with the base of voters in Texas who transformed him from an ambitious conservative waiting in the wings to a media-friendly star on a national stage.

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